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The Shaggy Ink Cap, Coprinus comatus: An Unsuspitious Predator

Updated on September 18, 2013
The shaggy ink cap dripping its black spore ink.
The shaggy ink cap dripping its black spore ink.
Closer look on the shaggy ink cap.
Closer look on the shaggy ink cap.
Shaggy ink caps.
Shaggy ink caps.

Looking at the common and well-known shaggy ink cap, Coprinus comatus, you would not guess that you are looking at a merciless and ruthless predator. However, its preys are microscopic and live in the soil, far from human eyes. The shaggy ink cap distributes widely across the Northern Hemisphere and has also been introduced in Australia and in New Zealand. It is edible and in China is popular enough to be cultivated as food. The shaggy ink cap is easily recognizable from its almost cylindrical bell-shaped cap that initially covers most of its stem when young. The white cap is covered with shaggy scales that are browner closer to the apex. Hence the common name shaggy. The gills beneath the cap start as white then change to pink and finally turn to black as the mushroom matures. At this point they secret a black liquid filled with spores, commonly seeing dripping from the cap, resembling black ink and giving it its popular name. The shaggy ink cap normally grows up to 40 cm high. This species is unusual for several reasons. The first one is that it dissolves itself, i.e. it produces enzymes that degrade its own flesh once after being picked or during the final stage of growth when is depositing its spores. This decaying process is fast and resolves in a matter of hours which bring problems to preserve it after harvesting, mostly because it changes the taste of its tissue. For this reason it is mainly consumed when it is still young and its gills vary from white to pink. The second aspect that makes this common mushroom so unusual is that apart from its saprophytic nature, i.e. living from dead organic matter in the soil, it is also an efficient predator of microscopic nematodes, roundworms that live underground. This aspect has only been observed very recently, in 2004. Thus, it is classified as a nematophagous fungus, i.e. a fungus that preys on nematodes, or roundworms. So far it has been observed that the shaggy ink cap preys on two species of free-living nematodes: Panagrellus redivivus Goodey and the root-knot nematode, Meloidogyne arenaria. Both these nematodes are known to attack plants. The shaggy ink cap produces an unusual structure designated by spiny ball set on a sporophore-like branch in its hyphae, fungal cells. The spiny ball is a burr-like structure assembled with a large number of tiny tubes. Whenever a nematode passes by rubbing itself on one of these structures it is wounded and immobilized by the action of toxins that are simultaneously released. Not long after hyphae invade the wound and colonise the animal body. The infected nematode is digested and consumed within days. This strategy of preying on nematodes is different from what is known on the other 200 species of nematophagous fungi, but that is topic for another hub.

Scanning electron micrographs on the spiny balls on the shaggy ink hyphae
Scanning electron micrographs on the spiny balls on the shaggy ink hyphae | Source
Scanning electron micrographs on a nematode hunted by the shaggy ink cap hyphae
Scanning electron micrographs on a nematode hunted by the shaggy ink cap hyphae | Source

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